Our opinion: What are you willing to pay?

Caveat emptor.

It’s Latin for “let the buyer beware,” but it can also be expanded to “you get what you pay for.”

For most of us it’s a pretty straight-forward piece of logic, except when it comes to government and taxes. And, that’s been true since the ancient Romans coined the phrase.

Nobody ever believes they get what they pay for from government. There is always a suspicion – or, more likely a conviction – that government is fraught with waste and tainted by fraud and deception.

It is as true of local government as it is of the gorilla that lives in Washington.

So, when County Commissioner John Eggleston addressed the Warren County Council of Governments with a suggestion regarding impending budget cuts and their affect on services, he was attempting to apply that centuries-old concept. “What all politicians need to do is confront citizens (and ask) ‘What do you want to pay for?'”

In a world where there wasn’t the presumption that all government is wasteful, it would be a fairly simple matter for politicians in a democratic society to heed Eggleston’s advice.

There’s another fly in the ointment, however. What’s good and worthwhile and important for Constituent A may not be good and worthwhile and important for Constituent B. It’s the conundrum of public policy for which Abraham Lincoln borrowed an analysis from a poet named John Lydgate: “You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.”

To all of these theorems of government expectations allow us to add our own postulate: Government, like any large organization, is prone to some measure of waste, and its propensity for waste increases with size and distance from its constituents.

The governments represented in the Warren County Council of Governments are at the lower end of that scale and closest to the people they serve. We’re not saying there is no waste in local government, just not to the extent of the governments based in Harrisburg or Washington.

So, when a county commissioner asks “What do you want to pay for?” his question is pragmatic rather than passive-aggressive.

Unfortunately, he is likely to get hundreds of different and often conflicting answers.